A legal aid organization will be more effective when its staff actively participates in bar organizations and other types of professional associations.
There is a strong community of interest between a legal aid organization and state and local organized bars. It is important, therefore, for a legal aid organization and its practitioners to participate in the affairs of bar associations inLegal aid practitioners should participate so that their insights into the needs of client communities are a part of the deliberations of the bar. The legal aid organization should collaborate as an institution with the organized bar with which it shares common interests related to the effective operation of the legal system and in access to justice. Many state bar associations have statutorily assigned responsibilities related to legal practice in the state. The organization will also benefit from both attorney and non-attorney staff participating in professional associations, affinity groups, and other coalitions that focus on equal justice issues, or other issues specific to the needs of clients.
Participation in Local and State Bar Associations
The legal aid organization should encourage its staff to participate in the full range of activities of bar associations. This includes participating in regulatory reform efforts, including conversations with courts and academia that seek to increase access to legal services and access to justice, and also enhance lawyer practice sustainability. The latter is a stated reason for several innovation efforts at the state level.
Participation in the bar association is an avenue for concerns associated with legal aid practice and/or access to justice and self-represented litigants to be voiced in the formal and informal deliberations of the bar. It will also provide a forum for legal aid practitioners to develop personal relationships with other members of the bar and bar boards/regulators that can enhance representation of clients, services to those without lawyers, and the shaping of policy changes and innovations undertaken in the name of access to justice or closing the justice gap.
Some bar associations have sections or committees that cover broad substantive areas such as housing and family law, as well as matters such as court administration and legal practice. They also often have standing committees on ethics and disciplinary matters, as well as committees on legal aid and indigent representation. Legal aid organizations should encourage participation by their practitioners in a full array of bar sections and committees.
When appropriate, legal aid practitioners should seek leadership positions including those as officers of the bar. Such participation can establish legal aid practitioners as bar leaders with the attendant professional stature that can benefit both the practitioner and the legal aid organization.
Some bar associations have a special section for paralegals and other non-licensed practitioners and the organization should support participation in such sections by relevant members of its staff. Many local bar associations perform a variety of important functions in their jurisdiction, many of which may affect the operation of a legal aid organization and its practitioners. Some local bar associations, on the other hand, are not as active on a wide agenda of issues but do serve as a forum for their members to interact professionally and socially.
A growing number of state bar associations and supreme courts are considering regulatory reform efforts that center on technology and innovation to close the justice gap, especially for unrepresented parties. Organizations need to become aware and conversant in state court rule changes that approve regulatory reforms to allow private funding streams to create and deploy new technology to those without lawyers. Since many of these innovations are technology-driven, legal aid staff needs speak out on behalf of the communities it serves to ensure those new products do not confuse those who might qualify for legal services and end up paying for services and tools that have already been created by nonprofit legal organizations to provide information, advice, and form automation. To the degree that reform efforts affect technology created and designed by legal nonprofits, as well as those that are used by legal aid clients or applicants, legal aid organizations need to develop expertise in the current approaches bar boards and supreme courts are approving and be a part of those conversations.
Similarly, where other regulatory reforms are sought, such as to allow for paraprofessionals to be authorized to engage in providing certain legal services directly to consumers, it is vital that representatives of the legal aid community be engaged in those processes to ensure that such efforts are effective in actually meeting underserved legal needs.
The legal aid organization should also work in partnership with local and statewide bar associations to develop and implement strategies to enhance recruitment of volunteer attorneys and to foster their participation in serving client-eligible persons. It should also consult with the organized bar regarding its priorities and means of delivering service to its clients.
Local and state bar associations are often involved through committees in issues such as how the judiciary responds to the needs of pro se litigants and how the court is organized to address cases such as family law and domestic violence. The organization should work actively with the bar as it addresses such issues. It should also bring matters that implicate how the legal system responds to the legal needs of its client community to the attention of the organized bar.
The organized bar may serve as an important ally on policy issues that affect the operation of the organization or the communities it serves. The state bar association and many local bars represent the interests of the profession before the legislature and administrative bodies. The organization should work with local and state bar associations to identify and support policies that will foster increased responsiveness of the legal system to its clients and should seek to have the bar's policy advocates speak out on issues involving equal access to justice. The organized bar can also be an influential ally supporting requests from state and local legislative bodies for organization funding.
Participation with Other Associations and Activities
Both attorney and other team members in the organization should be encouraged to participate in other types of professional associations and groups, such as human resource societies, technology listservs, access-to-justice groups, conversations, and commissions, or supervision discussion groups. Other associations may be practice-area specific such as a domestic violence coalitions or tenant rights organizations. The organization's clients and its staff will benefit from involvement with other groups with aligned goals serving the same clients.
In the past three years, academia and philanthropy have taken a welcome role in the facilitation of discussions about the future of access to justice in the U.S. Legal aid groups must be aware of those discussions, standards being discussed, and vision for how the public will interact with public systems like courts or state agencies. If the state has an Access to Justice Commission, legal aid staff should be encouraged to participate in those groups - and any other group that is creating plans for the future of how services will be delivered in the next five to 10 years.